Read Nine Planets first 5 pages

This is not the complete first section of the book, but enough to give you a taste.

 

Curse

Father Nick’s Day minus seventeen hundred years
The harbour town of Patara
Province of Lycia
late evening

The thought comes upon Nikolas so abruptly and with such potency that he halts, astonished, panting with fright.

Take his own life? Drive steel into his own belly?

He almost laughs to drive out such mischievous wickedness, but it persists.

Kill yourself, Nikolas. There is no hope.

Chills crevice into the parts of his body where until now were only the delights of wine and the many pleasures of food, for the party he has just farewelled was lavish and he spent much. So was his wine cup poisoned with some venom of despair? Were thieves and slavemasters even now following him? For certainly the riches of his parents, dead only this month gone, are substantial and tempting, and now they are his.

It is then that he notices the sudden silence of the streets of Patara—so strange! If pursuers are abroad, they are making no noise of it. Only Nikolas and the wind are out this night, and it troubles him.

Still, there is only a mile to his house, and certainly the morning sun after sleep will settle such afflictions of the soul. But perhaps, he ponders as he strides, it is the same bleak despair that killed Umit his friend barely two weeks ago. For even Umit’s youth and great cheer and strength were not guard enough against hopelessness.

Nikolas is fighting the mad lust for steel and blood—his own—when he catches wind of something so wickedly foul it almost makes him retch.

He turns, curious.

Fish left to rot in a fisherman’s net?

He knows immediately it is not. Not even the most odorous catch could threaten to overpower him so violently.

He stops for a moment, covering his mouth, distracted from knives. This is no quirk of the wind, not the product of natural decay or ferment. Nor the acrid stink of a forge. But nothing obvious presents itself. The moon, a rich coin of promise and plenty, stands a handspan or so over the Acropolis up on the hill. The town breathes. A dog barks once, as though watchful.

Curious, Nikolas thinks, but as he turns to go, a dark figure emerges from the alley he has just passed, out past the house of Besim the leather worker.

Nikolas stares, thinking for a moment it must be an unwashed fisherman returning home. Yet the figure casts no shadow, seems instead to suck in light. And the stink surges at him in a putrid tide.
This is no fisherman. Thoughts of knives vanish. He should be away from this place with all speed.
The figure sees him and stops.

Nikolas draws shocked breath and his muscles lock. Neither is it human, he is sure, nor even the tormented spirit of Umit. No living thing could cast out so much smoke, a vile cloud that shudders the night and stops Nikolas’ breath.

Nikolas turns for home and hastens, very afraid.

But when he glances back at the next corner, in a blurred pounding of disbelief and panic and still half a mile from his house, the thing is following, and now it is gaining.

Nikolas rises to a sprint, though it is not much faster than he is already running. This is no common thief, that much is certain. And unless Nikolas can outrun it or hide, then he is sure his life will be forfeit as well, and he would rather take his own. He thinks of shouting, but the town seems bewitched, all too silent, dangerously so, and he doubts anyone will hear.

A hundred paces from his house, Nikolas turns the last corner, sees his house.
He is thinking how he will barricade his door and kindle fire to fight the thing off when, without any warning, his heart rises to a wild sprint, gallops at a rate he thinks must surely kill him, then slows. He stumbles, shocked, his chest swelling with space that it cannot possibly hold. His vision blurs.

The bark of a dog is cut off cleanly. Knife-clean. Without echo.

The wind drops.

Nikolas sucks air, stares frantically around and sees something he just doesn’t believe.

Only about thirty paces behind him, the figure has paused midway through a stride. Amid the smoke and fume, now strangely still, a single leg extends in a peculiar and quite impossible jut. It cannot balance there, surely. But it is, as though the world has halted for a moment.

Nikolas listens, more than a little afraid. Why can he move when his pursuer cannot?

And there, deep below hearing, in resonant strata he cannot even guess at, the world adjusts its stride, reconsiders its rhythm, pauses.

The world has turned aside for a moment, Nikolas thinks.

And he has turned with it.

***

His vision cleared.

And there, motionless, the shadowed figure remained. Nikolas stared. It could not be possible! The gods must prevent such a twisting of the laws that governed nature and movement and time! He was in another world, surely.

Or a mad dream. He blinked, trying to orient himself but realized he could hear nothing. Not old Deniz coughing. Nor dogs barking, arguing their territories. All the houses of his neighbors stood dark and silent, as if abandoned.

Even the wind was still, gone whispering and wandering through other towns perhaps. As though Patara were midway between breaths. He listened, imagining that all her neighborhoods had sunk deep, drowned under sleep.

A dream? No—the bits of crust between his teeth tasted more of olive than sleep. No dream this, not unless dreams offered him the barnacled smells of fish and harbor or the gritty skid of sand under his feet.

He spat on the ground and rolled a glob of mud around his fingers. That was no other world. Nor the moonlight on the hilltop Acropolis overlooking Patara, although the moon seemed very reluctant to rise. Nikolas rubbed his eyes and stared at it. An anchored moon, he thought. Surely it had been higher than a handspan above the hills earlier.

None of it made any sense! He glanced back once to the shadowed figure—he dared not approach it—shook his head in disbelief and took himself inside and barred every door and window. He knew he would not sleep—his heart was pounding too hard for that—though he might still find a knife to stop it.
Then he checked that his inherited treasure was still locked away in the place where his father had kept it. The time was once when Nikolas had wanted to use it in acts of charity. He was not one to luxuriate when so much need and poverty surrounded him. But now he was not so sure. What was the point in generosity when he was going to die anyway?

Having kindled fire in his hearth and found a stout stick, he placed a chair before the door and sat down, the stick across his knees.

A knock startled him. He jerked, his arms flailing, though he kept hold of the stick, and realized instantly that no bandit would be so polite as to knock.

Yet whoever stood outside had approached with remarkable stealth and silence. Nikolas thought quickly and looked through a crack in a shuttered window. The shadowed figure still remained where Nikolas had last seen him, though the person at the door could still have been a different thief. The world was full of them.

A second knock sounded, and then a voice. “Nikolas of Patara.”

Nikolas went to the door, the stick ready for blows.

“Who might you be?” he asked, one hand on the barred door.

“A poor man.”

Though his voice didn’t sound poor; it was calm and steady, not stricken with the croaks of age or the mumblings of wine. And neither was his accent local, though Nikolas had difficulty placing it. No sailor, certainly, not even in those three words. Nor one of the nomadic merchants who filled the markets with exotic smells and sounds. This voice seemed oddly clean of any accent at all, and it troubled Nikolas.

“What would you ask of me, poor man?”

Nikolas worried at the stranger’s pause. “Much and nothing, kyrie.”

Much and nothing? Nikolas mouthed the words, debating with himself. He had not spoken of his inheritance to anyone since his parents’ untimely deaths, so he doubted the stranger would be wanting to rob him. The man, strange though his accent was, might simply want a meal and a place out of the night.

Then why hide a simple request in riddles? The door-bar creaked under the pressure of his hand. “It is late, poor man.”

“And all the lamps of your neighbors are dark, and their doors bolted. All are sleeping but you, Nikolas of Patara. Will you unbolt your door?”

“There are strangers abroad tonight, poor man. You can see the one that followed me home if you turn to your right a little.”

And, to Nikolas’ surprise, a gentle chuckle sounded on the far side of the door. “Yet it was not you he was pursuing, but me. His lion and my lamb, a comparison he did not care for when I told him of it. And if you look out, you will see he will be no further threat this night. And all I am asking is a favor, kyrie, not your life. Much if you agree, nothing if you don’t.”

Nikolas’s breath caught. “And you will not speak of this favor with the door closed?”

“I might, but we cannot achieve anything with it so. And I have often been told of your kindness, Nikolas. Many speak well of your hospitality towards strangers.”

Nikolas slipped over to the cracked shutter. The shadowed figure remained.

Well, he thought. A night for marvels and terrors both. If I am to die, then may it be quick. Then he eased up the bar and opened the door.

Before him stood a small man with an enormous smile. Perhaps the man’s yellowed shards of teeth disarmed him, or his bare scrap of a body. There was certainly nowhere he could have hidden a knife or cudgel. The stench of the man made him cough, though. He was glad for the dark to hide the holes in the man’s rags that the moon wasn’t shining through. More hole than cloth, more dirt than stitching. Old, barefoot and scabrous, wizened and grinning, the poor man stood there on tiptoe as though he was peering through crowds at parading kings. He did not seem to mind that his unbound hair got into his eyes; his smile took up all the space on his face. He barely reached Nikolas’s chest.

“I can boil water for washing,” offered Nikolas and immediately regretted it, but the man was waving a pair of enormous leathery hands and grinning.

“No water for me, kyrie, or I will wash away. Nay nay, there is indeed little time.” He glanced up at the moon with his face bright. “Will you aid me, Nikolas of Patara, or will you go in to your bed and your dreams?”

“You say there is little time?”

“The person of smoke and evil will not remain forever as he is now.” The man peered at Nikolas with a curious gleam in his eye and Nikolas realized.

“You stopped him!”

The man smiled. “Indeed I did. And the moon too, though it will not wait all night for us as I have told it to wait now.”

Nikolas gaped. Bizarre upon bizarre. “He…he was going…going to kill me! And you…stopped him!”

“No, he has not the power of death, though he desires it. He will always be the second, though he aches to be the first. No, he has already done something far worse than murder. He has made you want to kill yourself. Hopelessness is far worse than violence. For have you not seen how bleak things have become in recent days? Why is it that the world has lost its sweetness and has become foul, a place without hope?” He reached up and held Nikolas’ arm with a surprisingly strong grip. “Why is it that you are thinking even now of taking a knife to your heart? You are too young for such despair.”

“You know?”

The old man squeezed Nikolas’ forearm. “Why?”

Nikolas had to confess he did not know, though he was not surprised by the question. Not only in Patara had folk begun to speak with resignation of the futility of existence that had taken root in their hearts and minds. Hundreds had wasted their coin on wine and dance, or chariots and fine horses, or fine silks and costly jewels, or unspeakable debauchery, then slipped knives into their own hearts. Or refused to eat, the methods were many. Some had even gone to the mountains and climbed above the snowline to remain there until they perished. Or walked off piers, such as Umit had done.

Men and women of note or of unimportance—it mattered little. And it was true of other towns, other cities, indeed other countries. But no-one knew why. Patara and Anatolia were not ravaged by plague or war, certainly not enough to cause a widespread hopelessness.

He looked at the poor man, deeply troubled. It was unlikely that the man had come to his house simply to discuss the heart of man and its failings. “Do you know, then?”

The old man’s voice was soft, though Nikolas remembered every word. “The person of smoke who pursues us has placed a curse of hopelessness on mankind, and most lately on you.”

Nikolas could hardly speak.

“He hopes that you will kill yourself.” He reached into some hidden place in his garment and withdrew a long knife, beautiful, glimmering and deliciously curved.

Part of Nikolas longed for it.

“And here is the weapon with which you will do it.” He stared at Nikolas for a moment. “If you choose to.”

Nikolas sputtered, confused and angry, and pushed the knife away. “No! How did you—? What is—?”

The poor man seemed ridiculously calm. “For have you not already wasted your coin tonight in the fruitless pursuit of things that do not last, and found no lasting truth in them?”

Nikolas nodded, bewildered.

“Now, having found no purpose, you will take your own life.” He held out the knife again, his eyes level and steady.

“No! This is foolishness!”

“It is not, kyrie. Our pursuer controls some of the powerful merchant houses in Turkey and Arabia, and even countries further again. From many things you paid for this night, he will derive a small part. One copper coin out of a hundred—it seems insignificant, but many copper coins from many bazaars and markets and lavish feasts are sufficient to make him rich. So his curse will rob you first of your wealth and then of your life. And his power is spreading.”

OK. So now you have the first five pages. If you would like the whole book, go to Amazon, click Kindle and type Nine Planets. Then click Pre-order and follow the prompts.

Thanks!

Greg

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